Jack of all trades, master of none?
Throw a massive cold/flu/virus at the end of a generally difficult month, and I’m waxing a bit nostalgic this week. I’m currently thinking about a question I’ve been asking myself for literally as long as I can remember: with so many paths to choose from, how do we know which one we’re supposed to take?
Do What You Love and Are Good At
If only it were that simple.
There’s an inherent curse in being passably good at a number of things. At the risk of thinking the grass on the other side is always greener (because I know it also has its challenges), I envy people who are the best of the best at ONE thing. If you were so good at one thing that your mind absolutely sang when you did that thing, you could lose huge chunks of time working on that thing, you couldn’t imagine a life without doing that thing, you would choose to do that thing at the expense of sleeping, eating and breathing if that were a choice AND you were the absolute best in the world at that thing, then choosing what to do with your life would be pretty straightforward: DO THAT THING.
But what about the rest of us?
The vast majority of people I know, even my smartest and most talented friends, are relatively good at a lot of things. When we were deciding what to study, the decision was difficult because there are several fields we like that we’re probably equally good at. Choosing a field to work in was the same. Now that we’ve been in the workforce a few years, we’re all coming up against that same old question:
What if we’d gone with a different field of study?
What if we’d taken a job in a different line of work?
What if we want to change paths now?
How would we even go about doing that?
So Many Paths, So Little Time: Thoughts on Opportunity Cost
The way our society is set up doesn’t lend itself to changing paths frequently. Most people decide on some area of expertise that they want to focus on, some type of experience that they want to build, and they start at the bottom of that ladder. Throughout their lives, they climb to the top.
Unfortunately, that lifestyle doesn’t make sense for many people.
Because no matter what we choose to do at work, we are choosing it at the expense of something else that we could be doing. Since full-time work is structured to take up such a large portion of your time (no less than 40 hours a week here in the U.S., but possibly significantly more depending on your line of work), you are forced to make a choice about what thing you are going to spend the most time on… even if you are equally good at several things that you enjoy doing.
So you can be anything you want to be, but you can’t be everything you’ve ever wanted to be.
Or can you?
So Many Paths, Plenty of Time?
The big fallacy of being told that you can do anything you set your mind to is that you probably can, but you can’t do EVERYTHING you set your mind to.
At least, not at the same time.
When I’m planning and scheming and dreaming of the future, there’s always a question in the back of my mind: at age 60, when I have kids or grandkids or nieces or my best friend’s kids or grandkids to tell all my stories to, what stories do I want to be telling? Do I want to tell them that I was born with the option to choose between several paths, but I only ever explored one?
While it may be easier to have one thing you love and are the best in the world at than to enjoy doing and to be passably good at a number of things, I’m learning to be happy with the ‘curse’ I’ve been given. Because it is a curse that forces me to incessantly wonder if I’ve chosen the right path. And that question ultimately forces me to wander between paths. Wander, explore, learn, try, fail, try again, fail again, wander again.
I think the reason that most people worry so much about whether or not they’ve chosen the right path for themselves is that we buy into the notion that we can only choose one.
If you want to tell a story at the end of your life that has somewhat unrelated chapters instead of a single field of focus… do it. Wonder. Wander. Make changes between paths in your life that don’t make sense at the time.
(After all, that’s what chapters are for.)